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Is sunscreen keeping you safe?

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By Jackie Rainford Corcoran EBS Health Columnist

In setting out to write this article, I thought a quick summary of how sunscreen works and a list of the top three best and worst sunscreens on the market would be simple and straightforward.

It turns out that’s not the case. What I learned is that despite our increased awareness of the dangers of the sun’s ultraviolet rays and expanding sunscreen sales, skin cancer is on the rise.

According to Environmental Working Group, a resource I often refer to when looking up health ratings of cosmetic, skin care and cleaning products, there is very little evidence that wearing sunscreen actually prevents skin cancer, particularly the most deadly, melanoma.

Also, much to my surprise, I found that the Food and Drug Administration does not require sunscreen and body care products marketed to babies and children to undergo any different criteria than those marketed to adults. The formulas are the same. The only difference is the branding of the package.

In most other countries, the maximum sun protection factor, or SPF, allowed by manufacturers is 50. Not only does an SPF above 50 create unstable products that can themselves harm the skin, they can also be misleading, giving us a false sense of security.

According to a 2017 article in Fox Business News, many sunscreens sold in the U.S. would not be allowed on the European market since we don’t require a product’s SPF to reflect both UVA and UVB protection.

In the U.S., SPF indicates UVB protection that keeps us from getting burned. But UVA protection does not have to be coordinated—even on products labeled “broad spectrum.” Overexposure to UVA rays can cause age spots, sagging skin and wrinkles. Overexposure to both UVA and UVB can cause cancer. The FDA is apparently reviewing their guidelines regarding capping SPF at 50, but no decisions have been made yet.

While spray-on sunscreens are convenient—I used to be a big fan—there’s growing concern around the effects of inhaling chemicals into the lungs, missing areas of the skin and not having a thick enough layer that actually provides the SPF we think we’re getting. The FDA has been looking into the safety of sunscreen sprays since 2011 but still hasn’t announced any conclusions.

While the list of problems with sunscreens goes on, I’ll end with the issue of hormone disruption. Some sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which leaches through the skin into the blood and mimics estrogen in the body. Oxybenzone has been linked to endometriosis in women, low birth weights in newborns, lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys, and lower sperm levels in adult men.

This information made me a bit disgruntled. It’s summer in Montana and my body wants to soak up the heat of the sun before it’s dark and cold again. I want sunscreen to be effective and safe. But ignorance, in the long term, isn’t bliss. Here at high altitude, UV rays are intensified and I want to protect myself wisely.

There are precautions we can take to fully and safely enjoy the outdoors. First, go to Environmental Working Group’s website and look up which sunscreens are safe (my favorite, easy to find brand is Alba Botanica) and throw away any you have that aren’t. Don’t get burned. Sunburns, especially among children and adolescence, can cause skin cancer. Wear a hat and sunglasses.  Find or create shade when possible. Invest in UV protectant clothes. Plan activities around times of day when the sun is not at its peak—namely before 10 a.m. or after 2 p.m.

Sorry for being a sunscreen buzzkill, but I couldn’t not share this with you.

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, culture consultant and public speaker. Contact her at

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